When is it Too Late for a Career Change? Maybe Never

It’s hard to avoid seeing articles and hearing people talk about the aging workforce. It is not just the federal workforce that is aging – the entire US workforce is getting older. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that the median age of the labor force increased from 38.3 in 1996 to 42.0 in 2016, and is projected to continue to increase slightly. The federal workforce is a bit older, with the median age of nonseasonal full-time permanent employees coming in a 48.4 in 2016. The federal workforce has been hovering in the 48 range for a while. It is safe to conclude that the median age of the federal workforce would be a bit younger if the numbers reflected part-time and seasonal employment rather than full time nonseasonal.

Why did I start a post about career changes with data on the median age of the labor force? It’s because many people think they are too old to make career changes. Those folks believe their choice is to do what they are doing now or to retire now or as soon as they are eligible. That belief can lead to a feeling of being trapped. There are some situations where circumstances really do appear to trap a person, but there are also many situations that offer more options than you might think.

Let’s start with the times when someone may find that hanging on is the best decision. For employees covered by the civil service retirement system who are not eligible to retire (yes, there are some of those left), leaving government is probably not a good option until they hit age 55. Folks covered by the federal employees retirement system who are close to their minimum retirement age (MRA) may also find that staying around is a good idea. They are typically eligible for a deferred annuity if they leave before their MRA, but they may not want to wait until age 62 to start collecting their retirement.

That leaves a lot of people who could make a career change, particularly people in their 30s and 40s. When people at those ages say they are “too old” to make a career change, I have to disagree. Most of us are familiar with the story of Henry Ford, founder of the Ford Motor Company. What we generally remember is that Mr. Ford revolutionized auto production and brought affordable transportation to the masses. What we do not usually remember is that he started the Ford Motor Company when he was 40 years old.

As the average life expectancy rose in the U.S., the retirement age also rose. People are working longer now, so someone in his/her 30s or 40s may easily have another 30 years or more to work. For a great example of mid life career changes, look at retired military personnel. With retirement eligibility after 20 years, the U.S. has produced many 37 or 38 year old retirees. Those folks typically go on to work a long second career.

The federal government is one of the employers that has no trouble with hiring mid career people. When the Defense Logistics Agency created its first agencywide training program for entry level jobs, we asked the Commander of what was then the Defense Supply Center Columbus (now DLA Land and Maritime), to speak to the inaugural class of interns. He walked into the room, then turned and left. Expecting to find a room full of early 20-somethings, he thought he was in the wrong room. The average age of that class was 37. Although some in the agency’s leadership thought it was a problem that our class included so many mid career hires, I disagreed. Those mid career new hires could easily spend 20 years or more working for the government.

For federal workers, making a mid life career change does not always mean leaving government. The ability to move from one agency to another provides a means of moving into a different occupation, geographic location, or an agency with a completely different mission. In many respects, it is like changing employers entirely. For those who feel trapped by their current circumstances, a change of agencies or line of work may be a big enough change to alleviate the stress. During my 33 year career I changed agencies six times. I found the experience to be eye-opening. Moving from the Department of Defense to a civilian agency was a radical shift in mission, culture and values. Moving from a field organization in North Florida to the National Capital Region was almost as big a change. When I was about 40 years old, I tried a completely different line of work. After 18 years in HR, I took over headquarters operations at DLA. Although I eventually went back to HR, the break from the same type of work and the ability to take on dramatically different challenges gave me a new perspective on my career and the work I did.

The bottom line is that career changes in mid career are not a problem and they can be great. Many people do it and find something that they enjoy doing. You may have to take a step down in pay, but the alternative may be spending the rest of your career doing something you do not like doing.

Is the Administration’s Pace of Political Appointments a Problem or an Opportunity?

The Partnership for Public Service, as part of its superb and comprehensive work on presidential transition, has partnered with The Washington Post to track presidential nominations and appointments for 638 key appointments that require Senate confirmation. With 274 positions having confirmed appointees, 138 formally nominated, 8 awaiting nomination, and 218 with no nominee, the administration is lagging significantly behind the Obama, G. W. Bush and Clinton administrations in nominating and appointing people to fill many key posts. The number of nominations is closer to that of the G. H. W. Bush administration.  The “key positions” include several chief financial officers, many assistant secretaries, the Department of Defense inspector general, the Director of the U.S. Marshals Service, administrators of three agencies in the Department of Transportation, the Deputy Secretary of the Treasury, and many more. Interestingly, there were also critics who said that by the end of his first term, President Obama was leaving too many jobs unfilled (though a much smaller number).

Many people who work in and with the government are concerned that these key jobs are not filled with permanent appointees. Others say it is not that critical. Both camps can make some convincing arguments, so let’s take a look some of the more common views.

It is a problem. The lack of appointees in many critical jobs means that the administration does not have its own people in policymaking roles that are essential to shape and implement policies. The absence of those people means policy development is on hold or in the hands of career officials who are not accountable to the public. It sends a message that the administration does not care about the basics of running the government.

It is a problem, but it is not all the administration’s fault. The Senate bears much of the responsibility as well. 191 nominations that have been submitted are awaiting Senate action. The average number of days to confirm a nominee increased from 42 days during the G. W. Bush administration to 59 days during the Obama administration, and is now at 79 days for the Trump administration.

It is not a problem, because many of these jobs are not needed. President Trump has said that he has no intention of filling some political jobs because they are not needed. The president told Fox News “You know, we have so many people in government, even me. I look at some of the jobs and it’s people over people over people. I say, ‘What do all these people do?’ You don’t need all those jobs.”

It is not a problem, because the jobs are being covered by acting officials. Jobs that do not have a confirmed appointee are being filled by acting officials who can carry out the responsibilities of the job. Everything that needs to be done is being done, and there should be no problem.

The truth is that all of those views are correct. Which answer applies is based on the job in question. For example, the Vacancies Act limits who can serve in many Senate confirmed jobs and how long they may serve. The Act, which covers the nondelegable duties of such positions, could render void the actions of an acting official whose service does not comply with the Act. Readers may remember this became a problem when Beth Cobert was serving as Acting Director of the Office of Personnel Management. When the job has significant duties that cannot be delegated and where there is no other official who can carry out the duties beyond the time limits specified in the Vacancies Act, an agency’s ability to function may be harmed. The Vacancies Act (officially the Federal Vacancies Reform Act of 1998), is a rather complicated law whose applicability varies depending on the duties of a position, other laws that may cover a job, and many other factors. The Congressional Research Service published an excellent analysis last year.

In some cases a job can be filled indefinitely by an acting official. Many such officials are career executives who have extensive experience doing the work of the agency. They may in fact be far more qualified to do the job than many political appointees would be. In those cases, one can argue that not only is there no harm in having an acting person in the role, it may actually be better. In other cases that may not be the case. The acting official may be another political appointee who is not Senate confirmed. In those cases, the wisdom of having that person acting may be based entirely on how well-qualified that person is.

One of the arguments that I often hear is that it is better to have permanent appointees in these jobs. But what is permanent? A political appointee who serves for 18 months is not exactly a permanent leader. The turnover in political appointees is one of the reasons for disruption in agencies. A steady stream of political appointees into and out of an agency is not any better than many acting officials would be. It is true, however, that “permanent” political appointees are more empowered to get things done. An acting official, whether political or career, may spend more time treading water because of an actual or perceived lack of a mandate to do anything big.

There is no simple answer regarding the issue of the number of political appointees. Presidents and agency heads do need trusted officials who are part of the administration to lead the formulation of policy. They also need career officials who are experts in the work of the agency or critical support functions to inform fact-based analysis of policy options and implications. They need experienced career staff to execute policy direction. It is probably safe to say there are too many political appointees in some agencies. The problem of “people over people over people” that the president described is a legitimate issue. Excessive layers of leadership in agencies can separate the people who direct policy from those who carry it out to such a degree that agency operations are affected. A leaner leadership structure may be better and more effective.

If leaner is the goal, for those jobs the administration has no real interest in filling because they believe they are unnecessary, the best course of action is to propose to the Congress that the job be abolished. Abolishing jobs that are not created by law is even easier. Most can be abolished by a stroke of the pen. During the Clinton administration, Secretary Bill Daley promised to eliminate 100 political jobs in the Department of Commerce and did it. There are many political positions that are not needed or could easily be filled by career employees. In 1996 the Plum Book listed 1119 Senate confirmed jobs (PAS), 250 presidential appointments that did not require confirmation (PA), 701 non career SES, and 1465 Schedule C jobs. By 2016, the numbers were up to 1242 PAS, 472 PA, 716 non career SES, and 1538 Schedule C.

One could argue that (1) having fewer political appointees is a good thing, (2) agencies have too many layers, and (3) that career officials are more interested in the effective operation of an agency in accordance with the agency’s enabling legislation rather than political considerations. I believe a review of all political jobs is a good idea, and that such a review should be conducted in a professional and objective manner, with the criteria for determining what should or should not be political established in advance. Whether the review is conducted by the Office of Management and Budget, a presidential commission, or by some other means, it could provide some certainty about which jobs will and will not be filled. That would end the suspense and allow agencies to get on with business.